Over the past week, two of my most knowledgeable correspondents have written stating their preference for the premiere recording of Elliott Carter's Piano Concerto — Jacob Lateiner, soloist, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf — over all subsequent versions. They were so articulate, and so sure of themselves, that I began to doubt my own judgment in favor of Ursula Oppens’ recording with Michael Gielen and the Cincinnati Symphony. So this afternoon, while nursing my usual headache after the Saturday end to my work week, I went back and listened to both recordings, back to back.
I can see the attraction for Lateiner. My friends were right about the sensitivity and comparative luxuriance of his playing, as reflected in the longer track times. (The difference in the total timing between the two versions is three and a half minutes.) The approach yields many memorable and beautiful moments.
If forced to choose, however (and let’s be thankful we never are), I still have to go with Oppens/Gielen as my preferred version. Considered as a whole, the performance is stunning. “Gripping” was the word I used in my Amazon review, and I meant that almost literally: It grabs me from the first and doesn’t let go. I can’t sit still while listening to it. Oppens’ headlong rush has great cumulative power, as if she is becoming more desperate to escape the orchestra as the piece evolves. The Cincinnati Symphony, as an ensemble, gives the concerto a greater unity and direction than the BSO does, with a surer grasp of phrasing and dynamics and a great burst of fury at the end. It just sounds, well, better rehearsed.
I knew there was a reason I found the recording so compelling the first time I heard it. Now I remember.
Where my e-pals and I agree is that the concerto is one of the great works of the past century.
There are three other commercial recordings of the work, including a second with Oppens and Gielen, this time with the SWF Symphony. I’ll be getting back to them soon.